Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Main Radio hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Main Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a physician and editor-in-chief of Maine, Maine Home and Design, Old Port, Ageless and Moxie Magazines. Love Maine Radio show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you’re listening to Love Maine Radio show number 339, airing for the first time on Sunday, March 18, 2018. Today, we speak with racial justice advocate Debbie Irving who published her first book waking up white about her journey toward unpacking her white identity and creating effective social change. We also speak with Donna Dwyer, CEO of the My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the old port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingen Jorgenson, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Cory, Jill Hoy and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: Debbie Irving is a racial justice educator, author and public speaker. She is also the author of Waking Up White, a book that tracks her journey unpacking her white identity. Thanks for coming in.
Debbie Irving: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: White identity, that’s such an interesting thing to even have to grapple with, I think.
Debbie Irving: Well, I didn’t know I had one actually until the age of 48 when I went to take a course called racial and cultural identities. It was a mandatory class when I was just starting out to get my masters in special ed. And I thought mistakenly that I was going to learn the racial and cultural identities of black and brown people so I could be a better teacher in racially mixed classrooms. And I was floored on the first day when the professor told us that we would each be doing our own personal racial and cultural identity dive because I honestly thought, “What am I going to be doing?” I didn’t know I had a racial identity.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that we are almost uncomfortable if we are white to feel as though we have a racial identity?
Debbie Irving: Well, not everybody in any racial group experiences everything exactly the same. But are some or many white people uncomfortable? I think yeah, I think you’re right. I think people are uncomfortable because well, for a lot of reasons. One is that there’s this idea in the United States that we’re all individuals and we make it or not on our own. And white people are very much able to buy into that and think, “We’re all just individuals.” My own successes or failures, it’s on me. And so, we don’t see ourselves as a group and we don’t know, most white people, we don’t know what the stereotypes are or the group images are about us as white people. But we are very familiar with grouping other people, having stereotypes about all black people, all Asian people, all Latino people, all Arab people.
The idea of being in a group I think is what’s really uncomfortable. If you say a white identity, a white person has to for the first time maybe think, “Well, I don’t identify as white, I’m Italian, I’m Greek, I’m Irish, I’m English.” But white’s a real thing, it’s a real category with a whole experience that goes with it.
Lisa Belisle: I remember one of the anecdotes that you brought up in the book was about Native Americans and when you were a child asking where did all the Native Americans go. And I believe your mother’s response was something that probably we’ve all heard before, but tell me a little bit about that, tell the people who are listening with that story?
Debbie Irving: Yeah. There’s so much to unpack on this one little exchange. The exchange went like this, I said to my mother, “Where did all the Indians go?” And my mother was a really lovely, warm, compassionate woman, and she said, “It’s really sad, they drank themselves to death.” First of all, one thing to note there is that I was a little kid and I was curious, which is the most wonderful thing about human beings. We’re all actually curious, but I think we learned to be less curious over time because of fear of saying something stupid or wrong. And I sure learned in that moment, the conversation went on a little bit, which I talk about in the book. But it ended up being a conversation that made me never want to ask a question again like that because the answer was so uncomfortable for me.
It continued to be about Indians, they got really dangerous and they were drunk. And my mother told me a terrible story about a drunken Indian who went on a rampage who killed a family. All of that I now understand is widespread mythology. And my mother wasn’t lying to me, but she was teaching me a version of history that she had been taught. I’m sitting here looking behind you at the state of Maine, behind you and thinking my family is an old Maine family. We got a land grant up in Houlton, Maine. And this entire state and this entire nation of what we now call the United States of America was once indigenous land for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years. And that history was never taught to me. I was told that the Indians couldn’t handle liquor. Later, I think I learned that they couldn’t handle European disease. And so, there was a real manufactured myth of a people … oh, and that they lived in the wilderness, that they were uncivilized.
All of that is untrue, there is a really rich history of indigenous people’s in the United States, what became the United States. And unfortunately, there’s a really horrific story about what happened to their way of life and to the land that they were so attached to that has everything to do with people like my ancestors and descendants of my ancestors who were engaged in … We don’t talk about it, but it’s really a warfare akin to terrorism. Boy, that’s a lot we can unpack from that one question. I was right as a little child to wonder whatever happened to all the Indians and how sad for me I think that I got an answer that was by a well-intentioned woman with a lot of love in her heart that perpetuated myths that made me go on to continue to be in a state of ignorance.
Lisa Belisle: You also spend a fair amount of time talking about the sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps, positive mentality that is really, it is actually a big part of I think white culture although maybe other cultures as well, but how damaging that really can be. This idea that if we just work really hard as individuals, then we are going to succeed. And that we should always put a happy smiley face on everything, but what if you’re from a cultural group that that’s not the way they approach things.
Debbie Irving: Yeah. When you say not approach things, are you thinking about a culture where working … Are you thinking about different work ethics or you’re thinking about the way that that one phrase, that one framing can work differently for people across different groups?
Lisa Belisle: I think what I’m saying is when I’ve had conversations with people who are, for example, I’ll just say Italian. And my family, which is French and Irish, we’re a little bit more conservative in the way that we interact. But I’ve been in situations with an Italian family, and there’s high volumes, there’s a lot of back and forth, the conflict is dealt with in a very different way. And so, what may initially come across is a little overwhelming for me because I came from the let’s all be happy, let’s all be harmonic and let’s look at this in a really positive way. They do differently because they are working through things in a not let’s put a smiley face on something and just move forward.
Debbie Irving: Right. That feels a little different than bootstraps for me. What I hear you talking about is a cultural norm, what you experience in your household is what I experienced in mine, which is we’re going to put a happy face on, buck up, look on the bright side, be optimistic. That’s a cultural norm around avoiding conflict. And also, what goes hand-in-hand in that is the idea of emotional restraint. If you are unhappy or if you’re angry or sad, that’s not for public consumption, just go do that in private. I’m going to come back and behave a certain way in polite company or shared company or company, whatever you want to say, but it gets positioned.
What you and I experienced is very much aligned with what’s called the dominant white culture. And that’s the culture that we’re all asked to understand and engage within when we go into the classroom, when we go into workspaces, when we’re in a hospital setting, we’re in the bank getting a loan, there is a way of being that’s seen not only as one way of being, but as right. And so, for me growing up if I had seen that Italian, and I did see Italian families who would kind of knock-down, drag-out over things in their household,. And I was really judgmental about that, I didn’t see that as another cultural way of being or one that might even be healthier. I saw it as a flawed way of being, as people who weren’t emotionally restrained and hadn’t learned that avoiding conflict was actually the more civilized approach.
Yeah. What you’re starting to tap into with that question and that observation is the idea of cultural norms that can work really well if you’re raised at a house that fits that. And can work against you if you’re raised in a different kind of a household or if the norm is that we’re supposed to be conflict avoidant and emotionally restrained, think about the judgment I used to cast on black and brown people who were trying to say, “I’m experiencing discrimination, it feels terrible. And instead of being curious, now we’re back to curiosity and listening and saying, “Tell me more,” I would judge them for being angry, “You’re too angry, you’re complaining, you’re stirring the pot,” it’s comments like that that are keeping this problem alive.
Lisa Belisle: I think and I want to go back to the bootstrap thing because I think you’re right, it is a separate thing. But I also remember you saying that one of the ways that you would deal with people feeling discriminated against was just to say, “Oh, no. I don’t think that that’s what they meant.”
Debbie Irving: Right. Yeah. Someone would say to me, “My check didn’t get cashed at your corner store.” My thought wouldn’t be, “You’re kidding, wow. What? I’ve got to go investigate that.” It would be, “No, no, no, no. They do that because they’ve done that for me.” I was so stuck in my own experience as a universal experience is how I now understand that. I just couldn’t hear truths that I didn’t want to be truth. As it turns out, there was discrimination all around me, I could have observed, but I turned a blind eye to it. And I did have some colleagues and friends, superficial friends I now understand of color trying to share discriminatory moments with me and I just couldn’t hear it.
Lisa Belisle: When I hear what you’re saying, I have had experiences like this and gone back and looked at myself a few years back or even a few minutes back and it’s horrifying to me. I would never want to intentionally hurt someone or intentionally try to shut them down or intentionally, I don’t know, engage in this dominant culture that’s so hurtful. But it still happens, and it’s so uncomfortable.
Debbie Irving: I am 10 years into this, it was 10 years ago this month or maybe 9 years ago this month that I started taking that course, racial and cultural identity. I am 10 years into a 24/7 learning curve, and if you could see my hand, I am not changing it at all, it’s a black diamond uphill. I still do things, I still behave in ways. What’s different is that I know I’m surrounded by colleagues and friends of color, they’re not superficial relationships. And I do have people point out to me or I will feel that feeling in my stomach and realize I’ve said or done something that may be hurtful and might just be a sign of my ignorance. And so, that’s a difference that I can catch myself and that people I have trusting enough relationships where people will reflect back for me.
And I know never to be defensive even when that feeling arises. I know to say, “What just happened? This is a learning opportunity. Why did I do that? Why didn’t I know that? Why did I react that way?” That really never goes away, the only thing I think feels different for me is that I’m not even comfortable with the discomfort, but I’m tolerant of the discomfort and I really, really understand, “Okay. This is a moment to stick with it, learn.”
Lisa Belisle: Let’s talk about the bootstrap thing, which I think is really interesting because it’s this idea that, I think you put it out there as kind of a New England thing where if you just go in and you just work hard, you can make your way in life. And any success that you have gained is a result of your hard work. And that was something that you learned over time, that wasn’t entirely an accurate representation of reality.
Debbie Irving: No. Go to the Midwest and they think they’re the ones who invented the bootstraps theory, and I go to the West Coast and they think they’re the ones. And I went to Canada, they have it there too. The bootstraps theory is a universal, it’s part of what’s called United States master narrative. Every country has an identity and a story that they tell about themselves to themselves and to the outside world on a big piece of the American master narrative is that the playing field is level, that anybody can come here and just work hard and you can make it. And if the going gets tough, we’ve got bootstraps so we can pull ourselves up. It’s very much woven into that level playing field concept. And it’s where a lot of times you’ll hear the word, we’re a nation of immigrants, which I want a challenge.
We’re not a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of immigrants and enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will and indigenous peoples who were already living here, who are trying very, very hard and still fighting every day for our sovereignty and land rights. That’s who we are, a nation of not just immigrants. But that immigrant idea that you can come here, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that felt really real to me because I was surrounded, I grew up in Winchester, Mass, a white suburb and North of Boston. I was surrounded by families who had a story that went, “My great-grandparents came here from Italy, Ireland, Germany, France. They had two cents in their pocket, they didn’t speak a word of English, they were treated like dirt. And look at us now, a couple generations later. We worked hard and we made it, we achieved the American dream.”
The level playing field and the bootstraps theory of working hard really does work for a lot of people. In many ways, the United States and this great melting pot idea, the reason it’s problematic is that it excludes a lot of people who are so marginalized and targeted with barriers to not be able to access the American Dream that it makes them look like losers. It makes it look like they didn’t work hard enough, like they don’t want to work hard enough, like they want to live off the government. And so, it allows a whole group of immigrants who are able to eventually become white turn and judge and say, “My family did it, why can’t yours?” Without knowing all that’s gone down in terms of erecting and maintaining barriers to housing, lending, education, food supply, medical care, transportation that many communities of color experience that white people don’t even know about or have to know about.
Lisa Belisle: You gave the example of the GI Bill and how that meant different things to different people depending upon essentially their skin color.
Debbie Irving: Oh, my God, that blew me away. If I could say one thing that people say to me in the book blew them away, it’s that because there is this idea, this is again, that level playing field. The GI Bill, which for anyone listening GI was the term used for veteran after World War two. And the GI Bill was a set of benefits offered by the United States government to returning veterans, and it had a housing component and it had a higher ed component as well as a couple of others. My father went to Harvard Law School on that bill and my parents bought their first home in Winchester, Massachusetts for $17,000 on that bill. And I thought it was available to everyone, it turns out the GI Bill mostly excluded the black and brown GIs because there were 1.2 million black GIs, they were indigenous GIs, there were Latino GIs and there were Asian-American GIs.
And the reason black and brown GIs were mostly unable to access it wasn’t because it said it was a white only bill, it was because there were pre-existing barriers in our society. For instance, I’ll just speak to the housing piece. at the time, the federal housing authority when it created the mortgage in the 1930s and set out to develop the biggest part of the New Deal, a big housing expansion all across the United States. The mortgage was created to help facilitate that. And the mortgage said that private banks and some government lending agencies were suddenly going to be in the business of making loans to everyday people to go buy everyday homes. This is a completely new endeavor.
And the FHA said, “We want to be careful that all of us lenders manage our risk. And so, we’re going to think about what are good loans and what are bad loans.” And they created color-coded maps of cities and neighborhoods and towns that outlined who lived where according to racial lines. The practice was called redlining because outlined in red were neighborhoods where black and brown people lived and outlined in green were neighborhoods where only white people lived. Then there were two other gradations in between. And this all stemmed from one phrase, and the FHA guidelines that said the presence of even one or two non-white individuals can undermine real estate values.
That meant that keeping white neighborhoods white was the only way. In the imaginations of the people who constructed this policy that keeping white neighborhoods white was the only way to keep housing values maintained and escalate, maintained build equity in homes. The GI Bill was only good in white neighborhoods, so black and brown GIs could not use the housing portion of that. And you think about, “Well, yeah. That was back in the 1940s and here we are in 2018.” But the wealth transfer that happened, $120 billion went from government coffers into the hands of private individuals through the housing portion of the GI Bill. And that’s in 1940s dollars, and 98% of that went to white families like mine.
That house in Winchester that my parents bought, they upgraded at some point and bought a bigger house and then ultimately sold that for a million dollars, 40 years after that first $17,000 investment made possible by the government. And when you look at the white, black, or you could just call it the racial wealth gap today, you’d see how much more money white people have on average. Once I would have explained that as white people were harder working, smarter, more intelligent, more responsible with their money. And now, I just say it’s an inevitable outcome of policy after policy, I’ve just named one, policy after policy that’s diverted resources and rights and access to white people disproportionately.
Lisa Belisle: How did that feel to you when you learned that your family had benefited and you had benefited and other people weren’t benefiting from it given that you were studying this?
Debbie Irving: I felt duped, I felt really duped and angry. Because I really love the idea of a level playing field, I love the idea of being part of a country where it is a safe harbor, where people can come to this country like my Irish ancestors did from a time of famine and find a place, find a home and work really hard and make it. And when I realized that that American dream that I was so invested in really wasn’t available to everyone and that there was greed and mal-intent. It wasn’t just good people not knowing better that there was a lot of manipulation happening in ways that made me suddenly not proud to be a an American. And I go back and forth between that, there’s so many beautiful things about this country and yet we as a country are not living into, we’re not walking the talk.
And what bothers me much more is that there’s a denial of that. I said to my family at one of our holiday dinners, I said, “What’s worse, if somebody wrongs you or somebody goes on to deny the wrong?” And even the youngest kids at the table were able to, “Oh. If someone does something wrong and admits it, you can fix it. But if they deny it, that makes it so much worse. And that’s what I’m really stuck on, that’s the work I’m doing is to try to figure out how to move white people to owning what we, now we’re back to that first question white identity, why people don’t want to own it or why it might be uncomfortable.
There’s a really tragic history inflicted on many people by not every white person, but by this whole idea of white as a race, whiteness as a way of being. And it’s just harming so many people, and I would argue it’s even harming white people.
Lisa Belisle: I’m fortunate because I have children who are in various levels of education. And so, I’ve been able to through them to see this evolution in how we are approaching education on subjects like, I don’t know, let’s say imperialism. But it also creates a lot of questions for me because, for example, I live in Yarmouth and Yarmouth is a town that had a lot of Native Americans at one point. And a lot of friction happened and there were people who came to settle the land and there was fighting and people died as a result of it. The Native Americans became known as the ones who had done the bad deed. And now we have a settler cemetery, the narrative is that here’s all this violent stuff with these violent Native Americans and they wouldn’t just give us the land.
As I’m trying to even make, I was trying to just do an Instagram post about a cemetery that I ran past. I didn’t even know what to call it because it’s not really the settler cemetery, does this make sense?
Debbie Irving: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: We don’t even really have labels around a history anymore because it’s almost so unclear as to how we’re supposed to interpret things now.
Debbie Irving: Yes. This is a little bit like the game of telephone, we are so many generations removed now from what actually happened. And we rely on, the winners tell the history it’s part of that. But even then as if the history has just gone away, it’s whitewashed in a way that it’s amnesiatic. I think sometimes when I talk to people about trying to just be curious enough to understand what you don’t know, I think about, Imagine walking into a party and something terrible happened there two hours ago, but you have no idea that it happened and no one’s talking about it. But the dynamics and the tensions in the space are still going to be there, that’s what’s happening in this country. All of the dynamics born of that are still among us, it’s why we tell the history we do, it’s why we get anxious and fearful and defensive and sometimes violent when the history gets questioned. But we’ve got to go back to that original history so that we don’t repeat it.
Lisa Belisle: I enjoyed your book quite a lot, I’m glad that I took the time to listen to it. It was an audio book, so it was fun to listen to the voice that I’m now talking to. I’ve been speaking with Debby Irving who is a racial justice educator, author and public speaker. Also, the author of Waking Up White, a book that tracks her journey unpacking her white identity. For anyone who’s interested, it’s an uncomfortable read, but it’s extremely educational. And I came away feeling a lot more curious, and I tend to be curious anyway. I appreciate your coming in, thank you.
Debbie Irving: Yeah. Thanks for having me, it’s been great.
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Lisa Belisle: Donna Dwyer is the CEO of the My Place Teen Center, a youth development program based on Westbrook. Thanks for coming in.
Donna Dwyer: Thank you, excited to be here.
Lisa Belisle: Well, we’re excited to have you, you are doing some very important work at the My Place Teen Center.
Donna Dwyer: We are. It’s integral work, it’s hard work, it’s gritty work and it’s hard work. And the work with that we’re doing is we’re working with kids ages 10 to 18, they can come from anywhere in Maine as long. As they can get through our red doors, they can come. And basically, the kids will even tell you this, which is a little astonishing in its truth, but they come there to be safe. And we feed them, we take care of them for five hours a day every day of the week, after school, through the summertime. And it’s a academic excellence and character development, life skills program.
Lisa Belisle: When did you decide that you wanted to work in this area because this is a gritty area, this is not an easy area? You have lots of nonprofit and for-profit leadership experience, why did you pick this one?
Donna Dwyer: Well, I really didn’t. I was lured into it and compelled. And that’s the story that I would like to share as to why I am so honored to do this job. I was looking for executive director jobs back in 2011, the winter of 2011 and this was one of them. And I thought, “Oh, well, I’ll apply for it, but I don’t think this will be challenging enough for me.” I went on the interviews and the interviews kept on happening and they kept on whittling down the candidates and whatnot. And I was looking at other jobs as well that we’re nonprofit but much more business oriented type of acumen that was required. But then the final layer of interviews actually were with the kids.
If you can imagine for a moment I’m walking into this building, it’s a former United Methodist Church on Main Street in Westbrook. The outside and the inside was completely dilapidated, falling in on itself, the 17 couches that they had there were all falling apart, it was dirty. This at that time was a 13 year old organization. And the organization was on its last legs, frankly. When I walked into the building, I thought, “This is going to take such effort to be a change agent for this organization. Do I really want to put the physical exertion much less the intellectual exertion into this organization?”
But then this interview came, and there was a young woman named Cassie who led the process. And she was the ringleader of all these kids, she’s 17 years old, there were about 25 kids sitting on these broken-down couches. I sort of sat down on this couch where a spring was sticking out of it and they started asking me questions. And the questions were, “Are you going to be mean? Will you still take us on field trips? What kind of a person are you anyway?” And so, I answered those questions and I just found them to be so intriguing. And then Cassie asked this question with this blonde hair, dimples, blue eyes and she said these words to me, “Do you have the skillset to keep the doors open so that my brother coming up behind me will still be able to come?”
And when she asked me, do I have the skillset, I thought, “Wow, this girl has it going on.” I told her, I did have the skillset. And then when I found out who she really was, that at 17 she had been homeless since she was 13. She was a child of parents who are substance users, she frequently ran out of clothing because her mother would sell her clothing for drugs, that food was an issue. And on that first day when I got to know her, I noticed that despite her smile and her gleeful ways and the way she conducted herself, her hands were tremoring the entire time. And that was from anxiety because Cassie carried a backpack with her. And in that backpack was her life belongings.
Most kids carry their L.L.Bean backpack with schoolbooks, their lunch. Cassie carries her backpack with her belongings in it. And so, when I left that interview, I had never had such a strong reaction. But I said to myself, “I must have this job, please give me this job.” And thankfully, they did.
Lisa Belisle: What were you doing before? What was the thing that led you to the place where you were looking for a new position?
Donna Dwyer: My passion for a long time has been kids with disabilities, but I took a brief break. I have a child with a disability, so obviously my heart tugs at that population. But I took a brief break and went to graduate school and got three graduate degrees, one of them being an MBA. And during the MBA process, we learned from entrepreneurs who always told us to follow your passion. Well, my passion is tennis. And I play tennis six or seven days a week, I have to play tennis. Physically and emotionally, I have to play tennis just like you probably have to run. And so, I thought to myself, “Well, tennis is my passion. I have a good mind for business, I’m going to put together a multi-sport athletic club.”
During this MBA process, this was for four years, I put together a business plan working on a $48 million, 150,000 square foot multi-purpose, multi-sport athletic club to be housed in Scarborough. And then what happened in 2008? The market crashed. And so, we continued to work on this business model for a couple more years, but because of the largesse of this process, I couldn’t get it off the ground past the second seed of funding. Then I thought, “Well, I’m going to go back to my love, which is social services. I know that area, I can do a good job in that area. And I think I can make a difference.” And that’s what led me to My Place Teen Center, Cassie and My Place Teen Center.
Lisa Belisle: I think I need to back up a little bit, you have three graduate degrees?
Donna Dwyer: Yes. Because I got them mostly all for free so why not keep going. I started at USM to get a special ed degree, a master’s in special ed so that I could be a better mother, frankly. When my son was born, I didn’t have the skill set to be the parent of a child with a disability. He had significant health needs, significant cognitive needs and I wasn’t prepared. And so, when he turned four, I decided I’m going to go back to school and see if I can make a difference. And I knew that advocacy was going to be a huge part of his development and I needed to step up to the plate. I thought, “Well, I don’t think I have the time to go be a medical doctor, go back to school for that.” I thought what else would impact him ? And his schooling would impact him, I thought, “I need to learn the same skillset that the teachers and the administrators need to learn.”
From that vantage point, I went to get my special ed degree. And then I got an administration degree because I wanted to know what it was like to be a principal. Again, never in real practice, never in real theory, never wanted to be a teacher, just wanted to be a better mother. And then I started to work in the field, an advocate in the field. And then I thought, “Well, at some point soon, I know that my natural inclination is to be a leader. How can I be a better leader? I better go get an MBA.” And so, what happened was I worked at the school so I got my classes for free, and then I got a huge scholarship. For three master’s degrees, I paid $600. That’s why I kept on going.
Lisa Belisle: That’s amazing. Well, $600, that’s also amazing. But you are a mother of a child with a disability, which is enormously time consuming from my understanding and you were working. And you said, “Oh, I think I just want to get some more education.”
Donna Dwyer: I’ve always been compelled to be the best that I can be. And I knew that to be the best mother I could be, I had to be a better mother. And that’s the path that I chose to give me the confidence to do what was right for him. And also being an adult learner is amazing and awesome, and I loved every minute of it. It was hard especially the MBA, I was a fish out of water. I was sitting in a classroom with engineers and accountants, and I really don’t have that type of mind. But the challenge in of itself was part of the work, just the challenge was part of the growth.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the My Place Teen Center, what types of things do you work with on a day-to-day basis?
Donna Dwyer: First and foremost, we serve kids, and that is such a simple word, “Okay, you serve kids.” But they’re very complex and intricate, and especially the middle school level where the executive functioning in their brain isn’t fully formed. Their decision-making can either take them one way or the other. And this particular population that we’re working with, they are surrounded by a daily lexicon probably which you and I were never surrounded with growing up. And their lexicon, ” My dad’s in the jail, my mother had a needle sticking out of her arm. We don’t have enough food in the cupboards. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep, I don’t have a bed. I don’t have winter boots, I don’t have a coat.”
This is their daily existence. If they’re first dealing with themselves as a kid trying to blossom or just trying to survive and then they are dealing with these trauma related behaviors, incidences worrying about their own parents, and in some instances being a parent in the home, they have a choice. And the choice is so perilous and close to one another that they can go on the path like their past, like their present, like what they’re surrounded with. Or they can be given the courage and nurtured, the gripped and instilled the accountability to be able to go on a different path. And so, our levels of success with our kids take many shapes and sizes and forms. The most obvious is you want the kids to graduate first of all, and then you want them to go on to higher education or the army or get a job.
But some of our kids are living in such a state of perilousness that their level of success, for example, is a guy, a young man we’ve been following since he was 13 years old. We’re a 20 year old organization, he’s now 28. And for him, he has significant anxiety, he had significant learning disabilities. And he lived with a mom who has severe mental health issues. From a very young age, they worried about heat in their home, think about several weeks ago when we had that negative 14, negative 15. They worried about heat in their home. And so, here’s this guy who did end up graduating high school, his claim to fame that he’s very, very proud of and we’re proud of him is he is the lead salad bar manager for Ruby Tuesday’s. Yet here’s what else we know about him, he’s never been on government assistance, he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t need it. He wants to earn his own way, he provides for his mother.
And last winter on one of his shifts when he came home from work, he found her with a cord around her neck. She went into P6 for several months, and he’s still working at Ruby Tuesday’s. He takes his mother, she’s out of there now, she’s stable. But here’s this guy who struggled in school, has his own anxiety, he’s taking care of his mom and he’s a contributing member of our community and society. That’s his success story.
Lisa Belisle: How do you help people to choose a different path because the draw of the familiar is so strong, the patterning that they’ve experienced is so significant in their young lives that to go in a different direction that requires an enormous amount of strength and probably a lot of help?
Donna Dwyer: Yes. And it’s relentless and it’s never ending. Deliberately, we have set up our physical environment to mimic a home. From the moment you step on our property, there’s a white picket fence. In the spring, summer and fall there are beautiful gardens surrounding the building. There’s an American flag waving and there are beckoning doors for them to come through. We’ve decorated unlike any other teen center I’ve ever seen, we decorate it with art, with knickknacks, with comfortable furniture, a living room type feel. We also provide dinners to them every day so they can eat and get a really good nutritious full meal every single day. That’s one way that we do it.
Then we treat them with a lot of love. And our philosophy is love first in all instances and firm when we need to be, like parents. And the third way is through sheer will and determination is that we give these kids lots and lots, and lots of chances because we all make lots of mistakes, and these kids are no different. And so, we meet them where they’re at. That’s kind of a trite saying, a lot of people say that, we meet people where they’re at. But if you’re meeting them when they’re in the most raw, they’re the most vulnerable, they’re the most gritty and they’re there most opportunity for resilience to be immersed in them.
We are compelled, it is our passion to make a difference in these kids lives, our heart calls to them.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Cape Elizabeth. And that is known to be probably one of the more financially economically advantaged communities in the state of Maine. And yet, there are people who live in Cape Elizabeth who don’t have as much as other people do. Your organization is based in Westbrook and it has a very different demographic. And this is kind of a theoretical question, but how would somebody from Cape Elizabeth who had needs access the type of programming that you offer out in Westbrook?
Donna Dwyer: Meaning if a kid from Cape Elizabeth wanted to come?
Lisa Belisle: Yes.
Donna Dwyer: They can come. If they can get transportation to come there, they can come. Do they come? No, they don’t come. Kids from Cape typically do not come, Falmouth do not come, South Portland comes, Portland comes, Gorham comes, Standish comes, certainly Westbrook comes. Our barriers, there are none except you have to be a kid to come through our doors, but any kid from anywhere can come. What you’re seeing is, and I’ve gone to present up in Falmouth to the rotary a couple of times, that’s 10 minutes away from us. And I’ve said to them, and it was at dinnertime when I presented at their meeting, and I said to them, “10 minutes from these doors, 10 minutes from here are kids 35, 40 kids right now eating dinner that would not be eating.”
When you go to meetings, there’s always spreads of foods or events there spreads of food. And I always think to myself, “I don’t take this food for granted, I don’t take this spread for granted because I know that my kids don’t have access to that unless they come to us.” I will say this though, what I know for sure is that all kids, it doesn’t matter from where you’re from are at risk because if you don’t have an appropriate adult role model in your life, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or you don’t have. If you don’t have an appropriate adult role model that can be that beacon, that harbinger of hope, then you are at risk.
And so, kids who come from impoverished backgrounds can have an appropriate parent in their life, an appropriate adult role model. The wealth doesn’t make or break whether or not a kid and, I know you know this, whether or not they have success. Do they have opportunity and access to a lot more advantages? Yes. Do they maybe take advantage or feel like maybe there’s not the same level of gratitude that maybe the kids that come through the Teen Center doors versus kids who get it handed to them on a silver platter. That can be a barrier. And our kids notice that, they notice other kids’ clothes. They notice that other families sit down to dinner, but their’s don’t, they notice those things and it matters to them.
Lisa Belisle: If you are a kid that needs this sort of help, but you live in a community where for whatever reason Falmouth or Cape Elizabeth or Yarmouth or Cumberland, there’s just some reason why you’re not going for help. What is it that those of us around you can be doing? Does this question make sense?
Donna Dwyer: Yes, it does. We have caregivers, other providers specifically kids with disabilities that will bring autism or maybe some mental health issues. They’ll actually bring our kids, there’s the two kids coming from Gray on a regular basis that will bring kids through our doors. But just a kid who’s feeling a little lost maybe not connected in an extracurricular way or some peer group, a healthy peer group. I think it’s up to the adults, the guidance counselors, social workers, the parents to say, “Hey, there’s a safe place after school, they keep the kids busy.” The kids may not know that we are imbuing them with character development and life skills, but we certainly are.
I think it’s up to the adults surrounding this kid whether it be a school adult or a parent adult didn’t know the resources in the community. And for us, I said we’re not just for Westbrook, we are for any kid from any community anywhere at any time.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think that the challenges for children in this age group are different now than they once were?
Donna Dwyer: I do. And I think it’s different even in the six years that I’ve been with the center. And how it’s different truly I think is that the level of poverty is getting deeper. And I think that the opioid epidemic is prevalent, pervasive and poisonous and has a ripple effect on so many levels. And I noticed a change in my kids, not the ones that we’ve had for a while now, but the ones that are coming through the doors where there’s almost a sense of frailness to them that the level of desperation and the level of need that is available. Earlier in the summer, we had a field day where we invited families and the kids and we were just out, cookout and whatnot. And given this group for a number of reasons, parents aren’t often involved, the kids don’t want them there. Maybe the parents don’t want to be involved, so there’s a variety of reasons. This is the age group, did you want your parents around when you were in middle school or high school? No, you really didn’t.
These kids feel the same way. But I got to meet some of the families. And there were some of the parents that came and they were high. They were high in the middle of the day. And we had extra food, and not only were they eating that food, which was absolutely appropriate, but they wanted to take that food home with them, which was fine as well. But I got to see these parents in the state that the kids live with high day in and day out. And it reminded me why these kids are the way they are and what we have to do to change their paradigm, which is everything we can do.
Lisa Belisle: What keeps you going because this is not an easy job, and the word grit has been used a few times? This is a difficult situation, sometimes I’m sure you don’t have the successes you’d like to have. What keeps you showing up for work every day and investing in these children?
Donna Dwyer: I think I was raised with a work ethic, which was different from a lot of my Cape Elizabeth friends and peers. My parents instill a work ethic from a very young age, weekends were not for watching cartoons or sleepovers, we worked cleaning and for my grandmother, we constantly worked. Work ethic and a discipline was instilled in us from an early age. I had that inherent within me. This is heart work because you’re not in this to make the big bucks, you’re in this to change lives and in some instances save lives. And so, when that is presented in front of you, there really is no choice except to keep moving forward and to keep working it. And even when mistakes are made, to never give up.
And so, that is the discipline that we apply to ourselves and to keep us going and motivated that no matter what to keep going because even the organization itself is a successful thriving organization. We’ve really done a lot of really hard work in the past six years to change everything about the organization. But the organization lives hand to mouth too, funding is incredibly arduous for us and very fickle. And we’re always relying on the benevolence of others to change kids’ lives, to save lives. And believe it or not, a lot of people say no to us. Getting through that is the resilience that’s required of my team and myself is to have the resilience that even when you say no to me, you are going to say yes to me at some point.
I will knock down a brick wall. No means yes in my world, in my lexicon. And at some point, I will get a yes out of you, you will say yes to these kids. That’s the resilience that I require of myself and my staff. And then I play tennis six or seven days a week, and I’m a competitive tennis player. I captain teams, I compete. And that keeps me in this job and in this life and having my own hutzpah to make a difference.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I appreciate the work that you’re doing and the work that everybody at the My Place Teen Center is doing and I encourage people to learn more about My Place. And consider donating because if you don’t, Donna will find you and she will tell you more about her organization and you will be convinced, I’m certain of it.
Donna Dwyer: Thank you, Lisa.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate you coming in today. I’ve been speaking with Donna Dwyer who is the CEO of the My Place Teen Center, a youth development program based in Westbrook. Thank you so much for all you do.
Donna Dwyer: We are thrilled and thank you so much for the opportunity.
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Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 339. Our guests have included Debbie Irving and Donna Dwyer. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio, we welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are happy that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee, our editorial producer is Kate Gardner, our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassik. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. And our executive producers are Andrea King, Kevin Thomas and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.